If you want to understand why Israel is building a wall and fence around the West Bank to defend against suicide bombers, just hop on any bus in Jerusalem. You can't wait to get off. You scrutinize every passenger. You look at every backpack. You flinch when another bus pulls alongside. And you can't wait to get off.
Yes, Israelis admit it. Suicide bombing of buses and cafes has made them crazy, and the wall-fence they are building is a concrete expression of all those primordial fears.
"It is a tragic project," says the Haaretz writer Ari Shavit. "It looks like the Berlin Wall. It looks wrong. But there is a lot to be said in defense of the wall. No one in Israel actually wanted the wall — the government didn't want it, the army didn't want it, the right didn't want it. It was imposed on the establishment by popular sentiment. This is the Israeli people's reaction to the intifada and the suicide bombing. What the wall says is that we want to have our coastline democracy — a small, sane, quiet country of our own, keeping both the Palestinians and the settlers out. In this sense, I think there is wisdom in it."
No question, this wall-fence marks a major turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But whether it will be a turning point toward sanity and quiet, as so many Israelis hope, or will instead fuel the conflict, will depend, quite literally, on which way the wall itself turns.
For now only about one-fifth of the wall has been completed — along the northern and western borders between the West Bank and Israel, and a few areas in Jerusalem. But as the wall snakes south, Ariel Sharon, the hard-line Israeli prime minister, has to soon decide: Will it continue to hew roughly to the 1967 Green Line border or will it turn east, deep into the West Bank, to protect most Jewish settlements. If it turns east, it will imprison hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, separating them from their fields, families and jobs, a process that is already starting.
For now, Mr. Sharon seems paralyzed. The Americans, Israeli left-wing parties and Palestinians are tugging him to keep the next stages of the wall near the Green Line, the settlers are pulling him either to abandon the whole idea or include all the major settlement blocks, while the bus-riding Israeli silent majority is simply screaming: "Give us a wall."
In other words, the Israeli left wants the wall to be built in a way that makes it safe for Israel to leave the West Bank and the right wants the wall built in a way that makes it safe for Israel to stay in the West Bank.
A fence that would make the West Bank safe for Israel to leave, argues David Makovsky, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is a fence that would be built roughly along the outline President Clinton offered Palestinians and Israelis — which called upon Israel to turn over 95 percent of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in return for peace with the Palestinians. Since 75 percent of the settlers live on 5 percent of the West Bank — just across the Green Line from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — the majority could be included inside the fence, said Mr. Makovsky in the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine, and the Palestinians could still have a contiguous state in almost the entire West Bank.
"It's time we started putting facts on the ground that disentangle this spaghetti and counter the facts on the ground designed to entangle and prevent any solution," argues Mr. Makovsky.
If the wall were along the lines of the Clinton plan, it would signal Palestinians that a deal is there for the taking — and could be further adjusted in peace talks — while providing Israelis security and signaling the settlers beyond the wall that they have no future.
If the wall heads way off the Green Line, deep into the West Bank, as Mr. Sharon hinted it might, we are headed for a disaster.
Good fences make good neighbors, but only if your fence runs along a logical, fair, consensual boundary — not through the middle of your neighbor's backyard. If this wall is used to unilaterally bite off chunks of the West Bank to absorb far-flung Israeli settlements, then "it will just become a new and longer Wailing Wall," said the Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi. "But unlike the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, this wall will have people wailing on both sides. Jews will be mourning the collapse of their dream of a Jewish democratic state, and Palestinians will be mourning their own lost opportunity to translate all their sacrifices into a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel."